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In the shadow of the Gulag, Soviet citizens were still cracking jokes. They had to.

Drawing on diaries, interviews, memoirs and hundreds of previously secret documents, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! uncovers how they joked, coped, and struggled to adapt in Stalin’s brave new world. It asks what it really means to live under a dictatorship: How do people make sense of their lives? How do they talk about it? And whom can they trust to do so?

Moving beyond ideas of ‘resistance’, ‘doublethink’, ‘speaking Bolshevik’, or Stalin’s Cult of Personality to explain Soviet life, it reveals how ordinary people found their way and even found themselves in a life lived along the fault-lines between rhetoric and reality.

Dr Jonathan Waterlow

Jonathan is a writer and podcaster who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his PhD (DPhil) in History at the University of Oxford in 2012. He went on to hold a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He’s also been a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto, and studied at the Universities of Edinburgh, St Andrews, and the Herzen State Pedagogical University in St Petersburg, Russia.

He’s a founder at Voices in the Dark, where he writes and podcasts.

Praise for It’s Only a Joke, Comrade!

The best book on Stalinism I’ve read in a long time.

With unprecedented subtlety, Jon Waterlow explores the contradictory responses of Soviet citizens to the Stalin regime through a multi-faceted exploration of the ways in which telling jokes helped citizens cope with the pressures of living under a terroristic regime hell-bent on economic and social modernization.

The book will be required reading for those interested in the history of the Soviet Union, but also for anyone interested in understanding the manifold social and psychological functions that laughter can perform.

Waterlow integrates solid archival research with an impressive command of the theoretical literature on humour and he writes lucidly and with verve.

This is a book of great humanity and insight (with some good jokes thrown in).

Professor Stephen Smith, FBA

Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford

An extraordinary achievement.

Jonathan Waterlow has found a unique lens into Stalinist society through this brilliant exploration of humor. Maneuvering through the dark days of the 1930s, ordinary people told jokes that belie the image of a cowed, totally repressed, atomized population. Rather than all Soviet people being divided into pro- and anti-Soviet, affirmation or dissent/resistance, they made up a ‘muddled majority’ that practiced a critical acceptance of Soviet life.

Humor was at one and the same time a safety valve, a form of social communication, and a critique often founded on acceptance of socialist values and disgust at their violation in the experiences of everyday life.

Professor Ronald Grigor Suny

William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History, The University of Michigan

Humour is not an emotion usually associated with Stalin’s Soviet Union, but Jon Waterlow’s outstanding book shows how it was an integral part of the lives of Soviet citizens as they sought to make sense of the reality of life under the dictator. Enlivened by the bitter-sweet humour of Soviet men and women during the grim years of the 1930s, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! gives us a powerful insight into the way societies function at times of great stress and into the nature of humanity itself.

Professor Peter Waldron


It’s Only a Joke, Comrade: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life Under Stalin is not only an original contribution to the historiography of Stalinism, but contributes as well to our understanding of the role of popular humour, more generally, under authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century.

This book re-vitalizes our understanding of Soviet society by demonstrating the ways in which humour served as a means of self expression for Soviet citizens, offering them agency in their attempts to cope with and adapt to the demanding tribulations of everyday life – whether in shopping queues or in the shadow of Stalin’s Great Terror.

Professor Lynne Viola, FRSC

University of Toronto

A stunningly original study of Stalinist society, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! explodes the sterile binaries of ‘consent’ and ‘resistance’ to show that vast swathes of the Soviet population lived in the thickets of language and ideas where official ideology mingled with popular attitudes.

Waterlow’s fresh and fluent style crackles with wit and perception as he deftly teases out the veiled assumptions, fears and aspirations that underpinned the workings of (often gallows) humour in the 1930s Soviet Union.

Essential reading for anyone interested in daily life under the Stalinist dictatorship but also for anyone interested in how human beings navigate a path through times of extraordinary upheaval, privation and danger.

Dr Daniel Beer

Reader in Modern European History, Royal Holloway, University of London

People laugh at the very darkest times as well, as Jonathan Waterlow reveals in his brilliant study of humour and trust under the Stalinist dictatorship. Uncovering the dark and often disturbing ironies of history, It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! challenges our understanding of ‘Soviet subjectivity’ by telling a compelling human story of people’s ability to maintain agency in their daily encounters with the Stalinist system.

Prodigiously researched and lucidly argued, this book will make a major contribution to understanding Stalinist culture and society. It will be read with great benefit and pleasure by both lay and expert readers. Highly recommended.

Dr Matthias Neumann

Senior Lecturer, UEA

We are told that Stalinism was no laughing matter. Waterlow disagrees, revealing how popular humour was integral to how Soviet citizens engaged with the world around them.

Stalinism, a human drama. This important and engaging book reanimates ordinary Soviet citizens, revealing how they laughed and joked, shared and despaired, connected and communicated across one of the most traumatic periods in modern history. Through the medium of popular humour, Waterlow immerses us deep into the lived experience of ordinary folk during Stalin’s 1930s.

A revelatory account of how ordinary citizens experienced Stalinism. Essential reading.

Dr Andy Willimott

University of Reading

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